Over a cappuccino in central London, it's possible to find out how many bullet trains run from Tokyo to Osaka each day, and that a ticket must be bought two days in advance for a Sao Paulo soccer match; or you can chat with "Drale" in Croatia and "Moonchild" in Atlanta, and discuss O. J. Simpson's innocence or otherwise with "Spitz" in Indiana and "Oberon" in Bermuda.
Cyberia Cafe, in the heart of the West End, doesn't serve up last month's magazines to keep its customers entertained - it is hurtling down the information superhighway as Britain's first cafe linked to Internet, the computer network fast becoming the universal communication medium of the '90s.
Internet gives the user access to up to 30 million other users worldwide, and many more millions of files with useful and totally useless information, graphics and pictures, sounds, plus a limitless amount of party chat lines and clubs.
Sally Mathrick, 25, an art history and political psychology graduate from Bendigo in Victoria, has managed Cyberia since it opened in September; but she started with a greater knowledge of cafes than computers. "It's very complex - but I'm learning quickly and can help beginners," she says.
Cafe staff are known as "cyberhosts", who combine pouring coffee with poring over the computers. The four English, three American, Nigerian and Australian cyberhosts all have computing backgrounds and are avid "net surfers".
Access: "Cyberia is not as desolate as it sounds," Mathrick says. "It's a whole new concept in cafe society - it's the world in a coffee cup. Everyone should have a place where they can have access to the 'Net and all the information on it, - not just those who can afford the hardware.
"This is one of the best ideas that has come out in the last 10 years. The cafes are going to be huge. People will go to a 'Net cafe for a night out. It's just as entertaining as drive-ins or videos, but a bit more interactive, rather than just sitting there being fed things."
Mathrick is returning to Australia early in the new year to help set up Cyberia cafe franchises. "I can really see it working in Fitzroy and Glebe," she says. "Australia has a really good cafe society, better than England's. It's relaxed and sociable, and this will give it a very different and novel feel. It also smashes the anorak computer-nerd image that goes with Internet and computers.
"It's not just going to be people staring at a computer," she adds. "In a cafe it can be more communal, and people can share it. It won't be daunting - the emphasis won't be on a computer, but on the cafe with some computers in it. For Australia, it's a good connection with the rest of the world - it will make us feel closer to Europe and America. It opens up the global community."
So, over cafe latte in Sydney's Glebe Point Road or a long black in Melbourne's Brunswick Street, you too will be able to meet Oberon and Spitz, and find out what's on at the Louvre this week or catch the latest news from Chile.
Oberon sells Internet systems in Bermuda, where he says it isn't big yet but is going to be. "The next big business will be offshore information repositories," he predicts."And Bermuda has the right environment for the 'Net to be big - it is very physically removed and very wealthy. Wherever we have remoteness, you get a big interest in the 'Net because it removes that physical remoteness." Spitz is a music student at Indiana University and was only recently introduced to the concept by a friend who spends up to eight hours a day on it. "It's a great way to talk to people from all over the world," he says. "But I suppose there is a danger of it becoming obsessive and addictive, like [in the case of] my friend."
Remote: Following Oberon's principle of isolation, the 'Net could be applied to remote rural areas of Australia and be used as an aid, or even an alternative, to the School of the Air, as well as a source of information and news for farming families. Internet has access to libraries, universities and encyclopaedic files from an over the globe, putting the world at the fingertips of an isolated student.
Cyberia Cafe was adapted from an American theme by South African Gene Teare, her British husband Keith Teare, Briton David Rowe and Polish academic Eva Pascoe, all of whom had computing experience and marvelled at the potential of Internet. Six weeks after discussing the idea over dinner, they opened the first Cyberia Cafe in Whitfield Road, of Tottenham Court Road, in London's West End. The next day, Mathrick walked in for a coffee after backpacking her way through Asia and Europe. She saw the cafe side of the business was a disaster. With years of waitressing experience as a student, she offered her assistance and was taken as as manager.
The cafe is a mix of university computer room and trendy, arty cafe, with minimalist decor and clientele drawn from both inspirations, with the odd businessperson thrown in. The students use it mainly for research, chats and its electronic mail (E-mail) function, the arty types tap into the newest trends in international art, music and literature, and the suits access the latest news to discover what their competitors an doing half a world away.
Cyberia has dragged the cafe society pastime of writing a letter over a coffee into the 21st century - you can write your E-mail letter and send it to the other side ofthe world within 30 second. Many Austrialian travellers drop in on Cyberia to do just that.
And cybercafes won't destroy the art of conversation - they can enhance it by introducing people from almost every country in the world. "I don't think human relations are going to fail as a result of it," Mathrick says. "It's a way of exploring human relations further. On the Internet, you can talk to anyone - with no prejudice."
If you're after something more serious than an informal chat,
you can read one of the on-line newspapers or become involved in
a debate via one of the many interactive magazines in which users
exchange and respond to contributions in the magazine.
87KB GIF or 44KB JPG
Cyberia's customers, largely 20 to 35-year-olds, are using the 'Net to its full capacity and counting on its continued expansion. Business has boomed, at �90 per half hour for stu dents/unemployed and �50 for workers and, under the strain of 1200 customers a week, Cyberia has just installed three more machines to bring its total to 10. The technological overheads are actually quite low, as dialling into Rowe's Internet access point, Easynet, costs only the price of a local call. It's the initial outlay on software that is expensive.
The directors won't say how much Cyberia cost to set up because they are in the process of negotiating franchises and expect to establish a Cyberia II in Edinburgh soon. "We are not charging to set up franchises, just a percentage of the profits," Mathrick says. "That's how confident we are of its success." In Australia, however, franchise contracts will be looked at on an individual basis.
So far, Internet is completely free of censorship or control, allowing its users great freedom of expression. Contro versy has raged in Britain over the accessibility of pornographic images to children, and a potential legal minefield of libel susceptibilities has yet to be negotiated. "It's scary that one day somebody may try to control the 'Net and manipulate it for their own greedy ambitions," says Mathrick. "You can't censor it because there's no one controlling force. The censorship that's in place is called 'netiquette'. It's up to the users to show commonsense and courtesy, and respect the system."
Cyberia Cafe exploits this freedom with special events such as corporate parties, music nights, literature discussions, a virtual nightclub, erotica evenings and international protest meetings.
If the 'Net remains free of controls, cybercafes may become the spawning grounds for the revolutionary underground movements of the 21st century. "It's such a great tool of empowerment for the people," says Mathrick, who is trying to encourage more women onto the 'Net and so boost their current share - only 4% of users. Theoretically, the relaxed atmosphere of a cafe will facilitate her aim and obviate some of the intimidation many people feel when confronted with a computer.
The ability to meet people on the 'Net can lead to the formation of some great relationships and also creates opportunities for the safest form of sex - cybersex. But the open nature of the system doesn't allow for much privacy and one runs the risk of electronic voyeurism and eavesdropping.
Cybersex: While I was chatting with Oberon, an old friend of his - Dagmar from Montreal - came on line, and the subject of cybersex came up. "'Netsex is only really fun, in my limited experience, with someone you care about," says Oberon, before making suggestive comments to Dagmar.
Dagmar initially replied she wasn't in the mood but, as Oberon persisted, the conversation grew steamier and Dagmar's mood changed. I felt I was imposing, so I made my excuses and went back to my cappuccino.
Another one or two in Amsterdam.